How can Christian ethics guide our engagement with U.S. culture?
That is the question my students and I are exploring together this semester, seeking the ways in which various approaches to Christian ethics conflict and converge with the values of U.S. culture or cultures.
One of our conversation partners is Albert Borgmann, a professor of philosophy at the University of Montana, whose book, “Real American Ethics: Taking Responsibility for our Country,” is one of the assigned texts.
Borgmann asserts that Americans’ best ethical commitments include “landmarks of decency” (equality, dignity and self-determination), “virtues of excellence” (wisdom, courage and friendship) and practices of justice, grace and stewardship. Clearly, both Aristotle and Christian faith inform his perspective.
It’s his concept of “real” ethics that I find to be especially helpful. “Real” ethics, he explains, means “taking responsibility for the tangible settings of life.”
Borgmann uses what he calls “the Churchill principle.” In 1943, when the House of Commons had to be rebuilt after Nazi bombing, Winston Churchill said to the members of Parliament, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.”
The tangible settings of life are the “buildings” – the institutions, shared public spaces, cities, neighborhoods, voluntary associations and households – in which we live.
Corporations, governments, schools, parks, coffee shops, bookstores and families either nurture or constrain our abilities to live ethically.
Borgmann writes, “If we are unaware of how the shaping of our household typically shapes our practices, we can tell our children to do their homework, to stay away from soda pop and snacks, to talk to us and to practice their instruments till we are blue in the face – it will only create frustration and resentment unless our home is so arranged that doing the right thing comes naturally or at least does not require heroic self-discipline.”
It’s a powerful idea: We may and should arrange all our “tangible settings” so that the kind of life we hope to have seems possible.
Our focus is too narrow if we see an individual’s choices and decisions in isolation from the shaping contours of context and community.
Our tangible settings make and unmake us or, at the very least, they enlarge or shrink our vision of what we may become.
“The Churchill principle” is a “church principle,” too. Faith communities make it either more or less likely that people will be able to live a Jesus-kind-of-life.
It’s difficult to nurture peacemakers in a faith community that uses attack as its main way of relating to culture, to encourage love in a group that uses fear to manipulate people’s behavior, and to celebrate the essential equality of all Jesus-followers in a community that privileges the ordained, males, Anglos and the “successful.”
By contrast, a community of servanthood provides an alternative to the culture’s jungle of competition.
A community of generosity offers an alternative to the marketplace of greed. A community that treats people the way Jesus would treat them – not as strangers, but as friends – opens up an alternative to our society’s too-common alienation and loneliness.
Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder once said, “A racially segregated church has nothing to say to the state about integration. … [And] only a church doing something about prisoner rehabilitation would have any moral right to speak – or have any good ideas – about prison conditions or parole regulations.”
What a community says matters only if its words become deeds. Truth calls for more than announcing; it demands enacting.
We need alternative communities guided and inspired by the Jesus-story in which people develop, by means of steady and shared practice, greater capacity for living in the Jesus-way and in which faithful and functional structures support and reflect the Jesus-mission.
Guy Sayles is a consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches, an assistant professor of religion at Mars Hill University, an adjunct professor at Gardner-Webb Divinity School and a board member of the Baptist Center for Ethics. A version of this article first appeared on his website, From the Intersection, and is used with permission.